Park History: Natural Bridges National Monument

Three sandstone bridges are the main attraction at Natural Bridges National Monument. Photo by buggs via flickr.

Natural Bridges National Monument is one of the more remote corners of the national park system, but make the effort to find it and you'll be richly rewarded with an amazing landscape, rich human history, and glorious solitude.

Located not quite two hours south of Moab via U.S. 191 and Utah 95, the monument covers but 8,000 acres. That said, it's surrounded by some 2 million acres of public land, making it an incredible destination if you like exploring southern Utah's rugged canyon country. Within this landscape can be found numerous ruins and ancient American artworks carved and painted onto sandstone palettes.

Humans have been exploring this landscape for roughly 9,000 years. According to the National Park Service, the area in and around Natural Bridges "was first used during the Archaic period, from 7000 B.C. to A.D. 500. Only the rock art and stone tools left by hunter-gatherer groups reveal that humans lived here then."

"Around AD 700, ancestors of modern Puebloan people moved onto the mesa tops to dry farm and later left as the natural environment changed. Around A.D. 1100, new migrants from across the San Juan River moved into small, single-family houses near the deepest, best-watered soils throughout this area," adds the agency. "In the 1200s, farmers from Mesa Verde migrated here, but by the 1300s the ancestral Puebloans migrated south. Navajos and Paiutes lived in the area during later times, and Navajo oral tradition holds that their ancestors lived among the early Puebloans."

More recently, the Natural Bridges area was put on the some-what modern map in 1883 when Cass Hite, whose name can be found today on a marina at nearby Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, searched the area for gold and came upon its three sandstone bridges.

On April 16, 1908, some four years after National Geographic magazine publicized Natural Bridges, President Teddy Roosevelt designated the area a national monument, making it Utah's first unit of the national park system.

If you head to Natural Bridges via Moab, once you turn off onto Utah 95 at Blanding you'll soon come upon a dirt road near milepost 103 that leads to Cave Towers, a group of seven towers built high on a
cliff more than 900 years ago. A bit farther west on the two-lane highway brings you to the Mule Canyon Ruins, a collection of partially restored surface dwellings that have stood for more than seven centuries.

Within Natural Bridges National Monument, one of my favorite destinations in Utah, you'll be able to spy more substantial cliff dwellings from the 9-mile loop road that rises and falls with the landscape. The monument’s main attractions are the three bridges (Sipapu, kachina, and owachomo) that ancient streams carved out of the sandstone. Come with your tent and you'll find a wonderfully small, 13-site campground nestled on a small cedar-covered hummock with incredible night skies. Be sure to bring your own firewood, as you can't use any found here.

To celebrate the monument's 100th birthday, Natural Bridge's staff will hold a birthday party at 1 p.m. Wednesday with cake and banner to kick off a year of special commemorative events. Among those expected to be on hand are descendants of the first ranger to have worked at the monument.